Age of War (Part XXV)

The herdsman looked at them from beneath his fur-lined hood. He wore a kind of sleeved cloak, much worn and patched, and fashioned of weather-proof leather which encompassed almost his whole body. Jonis could hardly blame him. Up here, the weather was ferocious, and they had now climbed high enough that the snow covering the peaks would never melt – even if summer did ever come again. The old man was leading a scraggy herd of cattle down the mountain trail. They were a hardy breed, squat and shaggy, with wide horns and fringes that covered their eyes. She wasn’t sure if they were bred for meat or milk, but it was hard to imagine where he grazed them in either case. The slope hereabouts was bare rock and ice with only moss and lichen clinging to the stones. Further up, she could see the shape of a rude hovel with a curl of smoke rising from a hole in the roof. The man’s face was brown and as weathered as his clothing. And still he peered at them in something like incomprehension.

“Ruins,” she repeated slowly. “Do you know of any ruins nearby? Maybe that way?” She pointed up the trail.

“Maybe he does not speak Atlantian,” Huldane suggested. The Talosi warrior was wrapped up as thickly as all of them in heavy, stinking furs. After travelling for so many days though, they no longer noticed the smell. His hood was pulled back but at least he wasn’t wearing his helmet and his sword was hidden. They’d scared enough people in this remote country already. His round shield was slung onto his back though, so there was no hiding his profession. Neither could the twenty soldiers accompanying them, city guard from Atlas. They carried spears and wore even finer armour than his. In all, they must make a bizarre procession. No wonder this fellow was struck dumb by their questions.

“Well, I don’t speak anything else,” she told him with a sharp look.

Huldane leant in and spoke a few words of his guttural tongue, but this only seemed to confuse the poor man even more.

“Ruins,” Jonis said again. She tried to mime it, but how did you mime ruins? She sighed. This was the first person they’d seen in what seemed like a long time. The horses that had carried them into the highlands of north-east Atlas had been left in the only substantial town in the region: a miserable cluster of windswept buildings clinging to the base of the mountains. Since then, they’d encountered only desolation. She thought of this country as being locked in an eternal winter anyway, but even here there must be seasons – grassy pastures for these cows to graze, trees for the herdsman’s little hearth, vegetables to accompany the lean cuts of beef from his animals. But it was all dead. Every sign of habitation spoke of abandonment and, in some cases, banditry. They’d seen more than one burned-out shell standing silent watch over bare earth that might once have been a farmstead.

The man finally pulled back his hood and revealed a scrap of grey hair clinging to his pocked scalp. His face was thin, but his ears were his most arresting feature – or rather the lack of them. They appeared to have been cut away and only lumps of scar tissue remained. He cocked his head. “Speak up,” he said in an accent so thick she had to play his words over in her head to make sense of them.

“What happened to him?” asked the captain of the militia. Jonis knew her – she was called Tayne, and she’d travelled with them the first time she’d met Rayke.

“Bandits?” her sergeant suggested.

“Frostbite,” Huldane said in a low voice, “I have seen it back home. He cut off his own ears.”

Tayne cringed. Jonis leant close to the man and, as requested, raised her voice. “Ruins,” she said. “Are there ruins this way?” She pointed again.

“Roons?”

Ru-ins.”

“Roons…?”

Ru-ins!”

“No need to shout now,” he snapped, “ruins is it? Why now?”

“None of your business,” Tayne said.

“Are there ruins? That’s all we need to know, please.”

The herdsman worked his jaw. He had only three or four yellowed stubs of teeth. “Ruins everywhere.”

“I know – but a lot of ruins. A city, maybe?”

“No city, no. No city.” His wrinkled brow creased and he seemed to be lost in thought. He turned and pointed over his shoulder. “I remember though…they used to say there were ruins over yonder.”

“Where? Up there?” She looked where he was pointing. A forbidding peak rose over the mountains nearer at hand.

“Aye. They said. A long time ago.”

“They said?” Tayne pressed. “You’ve never been?”

“Eh?” He cocked a hand to his ruined ears.

“You’ve nev…”

“Forget it,” Jonis interrupted brusquely. “How far are the ruins from here? How many days travel?”

He just shrugged. “Shouldn’t go.”

“Why not?”

“They used to say it was dangerous.”

“Why? Avalanches? Sheer rock faces? What?”

“Black wind,” he said simply. “Haunted.”

Tayne snorted. “Yokels…”

Huldane didn’t look so confident though. “What does he mean by black wind?”

“I don’t know,” Jonis said as she straightened, “but this is about as far as our maps can take us, and this fellow is the only one here for leagues around, apparently. So, it looks like we’re going that way.” She pointed at the mountain he’d indicated. “Unless anyone has any better ideas?”

“Going home,” the sergeant suggested.

“Feel free. I never asked you to come.” She started off up the trail. “And leave some of our food for him. He looks like he could use it.”

“He will not survive the winter,” Huldane said, hurrying to catch up with her. He hefted his shield on his back, adjusting as he leant into the toiling stride that they had to adopt going uphill against the cold wind blowing down from the mountains.

“None of us will, not if it never ends.”

“You know what I mean.”

“He cut off his own ears. He could use some kindness I think.”

“Maybe.”

They kept on climbing until dusk began to fall, which seemed to happen swiftly up here in these mountains. They made their little camp in the lee of an outcropping of rock, using some of their dwindling supply of dry kindling to start a small fire. The days were rapidly merging into one long, freezing slog across stone and ice, and even the halting conversation with the herdsman had been enough to relieve that monotony. She’d almost thought about impressing on his hospitality, but she didn’t think twenty-two strangers would be welcome in his home – or would even fit for that matter. Tayne’s sergeant, surly though she was, was a capable woodsman. Her name was Calas, and she’d grown up in the country, coming to the city for work when she was older. Her keen eye had made her a good fit for the militia, and her bow brought them fresh meat most nights. The higher they climbed though, the more meagre those meals became, and that night it was a pair of emaciated, white-furred hares. There was very little to go around, and Jonis refrained, digging into the stores of hardtack they carried.

“I do not understand this land,” Huldane said, picking thin flakes of pink meat from a thigh bone.

“Well don’t look at me,” Jonis replied, “I’ve never been here either.”

He gestured out into the darkness with the bone. “How can a city remain undiscovered within your own borders? How can an old man not know if there are ruins beyond the next mountainside?”

“He’s just a farmer. And he thinks they’re haunted. I don’t know.” She was tired of explaining herself. Not to Huldane, who mostly kept his own counsel, but to herself, her own overactive mind. Her life had been turned upside down. A few months ago, she’d just been an ordinary Cyclops Keeper. She’d wanted nothing more than to care for her beast, to rise through the ranks, to do honour to her forebears. When had it all gone so wrong? Well, she knew exactly when; she could pinpoint the exact moment. It was when she’d sat down beside Rayke Albrihn on a hillside above a burned village, the night before a battle and decided she wanted to see what was so special about this so-called common soldier.

“I will never understand Atlantians,” Huldane went on, gnawing at the bone.

“You’re Atlantian,” Tayne said.

“You know what I mean.” He tossed the remains of his meal into the fire, where the scraps of meat left clinging to the bone popped and spat.

“Atlantis has been inhabited for ten-thousand years,” Jonis explained, “there are ruins everywhere. No one knows the story of them all. Your own city is built on Atlantian foundations.”

“But to lose a whole city…”

“No one lives here. No one has for generations. Atlas is the most sparsely inhabited Province away from the coasts. It’s mostly barren waste, especially here in the north.” Even on their way to the foothills, they’d seen very little sign of human activity. Whole villages were just abandoned, the people fleeing to more clement lands or maybe, she thought darkly, buried beneath these ones. “The heartlands of Atlantis are Chronus and Hyperion. Even Hades is nicer.”

“Sounds like you’ve never been to Hades,” one of the soldiers said, raising a chuckle from the rest of the company.

“Admittedly…but still…this is wild country, even if it is technically in Atlas. How many people have come this way in the last century?”

“Only that herdsman,” Calas said, eyeing a pile of dried dung on the trail.

Huldane nodded. “At least we have something to burn if we run out of wood.”

Tayne wrinkled her nose in disgust and bit into a hardtack biscuit. “Well, I don’t care why we can’t find what we’re looking for. I’m just following my orders.”

“Aren’t you the least bit curious?” Jonis asked her.

“Nope. To be honest I don’t understand why we’re wasting our time up here. There’s a war back home. If you want ruins, most likely that’s all that’ll be left of Atlas when we get back.”

“Twenty soldiers won’t make a difference, Tayne.”

“Better twenty more soldiers on the walls than in these frozen mountains.”

Jonis looked into the fire, thinking of what she could say. It was true she hadn’t asked Tayne or her company to come with them. They were here on the Empress’s orders, to protect them against the dangers of the mountains. So far those dangers had been cold and hunger – not something spears and bows were much use against. Well, the bows helped, she had to admit, looking at the remains of the rabbit on the spit. “It matters,” she said at last.

“Why?”

“Because…well, it’s complicated.” She’d tried to explain it to the captain, but had found herself faltering. “This winter…it isn’t natural…”

“How will finding some ruins that may not even exist help with that, Keeper?”

“I don’t know yet,” she admitted.

“I can see as well as anyone what’s happening,” Tayne said softly, breaking off another piece of hardtack, but crumbling it between her fingers instead of eating it. She seemed distracted by something. “Atlantis is dying. I can barely remember spring now.” There was a general murmur of assent from around her.

“Well then.”

“But I can’t see that there’s a way for humans to change it.” Her gaze met Jonis’s. She had grey eyes, normally unusual, but not for one with her colouring. Her hair was coppery-red and her skin pale enough for a mainlander. “You’ve seen it, haven’t you?”

“Seen what?”

“The ice. You went north, with Nera.”

“With who?”

“Lieutenant Morrow,” she said.

Jonis blinked. “Oh…I didn’t know that was her first name. I never asked. Keepers don’t have them.”

“She hates it anyway. But you went to Talos with her, didn’t you?”

“Yes.”

“And you saw the ice. We’ve all heard. A plain of ice, as far as the eye could see.”

Jonis nodded slowly. “I’ve seen it. It covers the sea.”

“Then we’re doomed whatever happens.” She tossed the crumbs into the fire.

A silence settled. It was often like this. These soldiers were nothing like the Seventh, but then she supposed they’d been here in Atlas and had seen their land deteriorate. They’d had to control a population that was becoming more desperate and starving every day. “There’s still hope,” she offered, somewhat pathetically.

“Maybe.” She looked up again. “What happened up there?”

“You probably know more than I do, all the stories you’ve heard.”

“I know about the battle. What happened to Morrow?”

Jonis could feel the curious eyes on her. “It’s not my place to say.”

“Did someone hurt her?” Tayne’s face was hard, the fire reflecting off the planes of her jaw.

“I…it’s a long story…”

“When she came back, she was different.”

“You know how she is. You shouldn’t take it personally.”

“You’re a Keeper. What do you know about it?”

Her words made Jonis flinch. She was an outsider. She’d spent her whole life surrounded by her own people, and her adventures with the Seventh had fooled her into thinking she could just be accepted as who she was, independent of the role fate had allotted her. But to some, she would always be a Keeper – a strange, alien reminder that the world was full of mysteries. What was a Keeper without a Cyclops though? She didn’t know what she was now. The tattoo marked her out as different, but it gave her no comfort to think back on what it meant, and what she’d lost. Even if the timely intervention of the Empress had delivered her from a life in the utter darkness below the deepest of the deeps, she would never regain her status. The truth was she was here because she had nowhere else to be. It wasn’t as if she could leave the Cyclops stables and take up a trade. She would always be what she was.

“We should sleep,” Huldane said, “it looks like there will be more climbing tomorrow.”

“Agreed,” Jonis nodded. But sleep was elusive, and had been for a long time. She lay awake for hours while the soldiers and the Talosi Jarl snored around her, staring into the darkness. What was it Malick had said? All paths are visible in the dark? Something like that, although perhaps a little less eloquent, given his rambling speech. She wished it were true. The night offered her no insight now. Eventually, she drifted off, and her dreams were filled with images of ruin and decay.

They were up for dawn the next day, and resumed their journey without pause. They ate as they walked, nibbling hardtack, drinking from their waterskins. There was no lack of that, at least. They boiled chunks of snow over their fire at night, filtered through porous paper and refilled their skins then. Drinking often staved off the hunger, even if it did lead to frequent brief stops. It was on one such as Jonis retied her breeches and shouldered back into her fur cloak that she caught sight of something strange. She was off the trail, behind another outcrop. These tall menhirs dotted the slope, but it was only as she looked across the sweep of the mountains that she understood their significance. They were not natural formations, but stones erected by people. She could see them marching up the next mountainside, evenly spaced, their black tops protruding from the snow. And, beyond them, there was something else: a low, dark shape, shored up with more snow, but it wasn’t part of the mountain’s natural topography. She peered at the rock beside her and then ran a hand across its surface. Yes: there was something carved there. It was ancient, worn away by wind and ice, but a human hand had once inscribed something on this stone.

She walked back to the trail where the others waited for her. “We’ve found the ruins,” she announced. There was no reaction, just looks of weary resignation. “The ruins we’ve been looking for…”

“Lead on,” Huldane said, hefting his shield again. He seemed determined to carry it the whole way. Who did he expect to have to fight up here? Who did any of them think they’d meet?

They went on, first descending into a valley and then climbing up again, past the line of monoliths. Their artificial nature was clear now she knew what to look for. They were like waymarks along the path. Perhaps this stony trail followed some ancient road? Jonis found herself becoming excited, despite the deprivation and cold they’d endured so far. What would they find? The remains of a lost city? Huldane was right that it was impossible to just lose something like that, but she thought perhaps if it was very ancient the remains might be much eroded and buried beneath piles of snow. No more than a few crumbling towers might be visible. More likely was a castle of some kind, something that might have been worthy of a point on a map a thousand years ago. Perhaps in those days this whole region was part of Omega; a rugged fiefdom in the mountains, ruled over by some baron in a cold tower. It reminded her of Talos. Whatever it was, she knew she had to find it, if only for her own peace of mind.

It took them hours to clamber up the mountainside, struggling through snow drifts. The sky was grey and flakes began to fall around them as the afternoon dragged on. Their pace slowed, but Jonis went on ahead, wordlessly spurring on the others. Soon she was thirty or forty strides in front of them, pushing her way through the snow, scrambling over rocks on all fours at times. She lost her footing on a stone shelf covered in ice at one point, but managed to catch herself and forged on, heedless. Almost as an afterthought she shouted over her shoulder for her companions to watch out. The shoulder of the mountain was just head of her now. Her heart was beating faster, and she couldn’t have explained why, truly. She just felt like all her journeys over the past months had led her here to this place. A trite observation, even she could admit, but that didn’t stop the feeling welling up inside her. The feeling that fate had put her here, now, and that she was somehow meant to find something important.

She sprinted the last few strides and then she was up on the edge of a sharp ridge that stuck out from snow, looking down at a deep, mist-shrouded valley. The snow was falling heavily on the peaks across the way. The clouds were low, and she could see nothing. She was breathing hard, and she stared around, bewildered.

Someone climbed up next to her. It was Huldane, with his face bright red. “Why did you run off like that?” he asked her between pants.

“Nothing,” she murmured. “I just thought…”

There was a gust of wind and the clouds moved. The great mountainside before them was revealed and Jonis gaped at what had become visible. The snow lay just as heavy, but it couldn’t bury the ruins that seemingly covered the entire mountain. The black towers and minarets of a shattered city emerged from the white blanket, forming streets and highways, squares and plazas and, in the centre of it all, the remains of a huge round dome, its roof collapsed by the weight of snow. It was vast: a vast as any city she’d ever seen.

“The Heart of Winter,” Huldane said, just as Tayne and the soldiers appeared behind them.

“Omega,” Jonis breathed.

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